Missouri drama teacher Jo Nell Seifert was floored by the million-dollar bequest left to her high school club after a close friend's death. But the dispute that followed made the gesture more bitter than sweet.
The scene is a railroad station in the Ukraine early in the 20th century. A young woman named Hodel is about to board a train so that she can join her fiancé, a revolutionary who’s been exiled to Siberia. As she bids a poignant farewell to her father, Tevye, he hands her a worn, dark-red valise with cream-colored trim and says, “Tell him I rely on his honor to treat my daughter well.”
Their embrace in this abridged production of Fiddler on the Roof has an adolescent awkwardness, but the pathos is there. For some older teens in the audience, and especially for their high school drama teacher, Jo Nell Seifert, the emotion is made stronger still by the presence of that small red suitcase. Its original owner was the late Kay Porter, and by tradition, every performance in the school theater that bears her name includes something of hers as a prop, a set piece, or part of a costume.
In 1998, Porter began funding the construction of a state-of-the-art performance space for the Poplar Bluff High School theater department and for Seifert, who considered the older woman something of a second mother. By the time the project was completed two years later, Porter had written checks totaling $2.1 million. After the retired businesswoman died in February 2004, Seifert’s school drama club received $980,000—more than the district has ever received in a single donation—to pay for trips to Broadway, printing costs, supplies, or anything else the teacher might want.
But this unexpected wealth has not turned out to be the freewheeling source of joy extolled by Fiddler’s thwarted Rich Man. Discussion about how to handle the drama club’s windfall has been protracted and at times contentious. Community members are in two camps: those who think Seifert, widely recognized as the reason the district got the money, should have unlimited access to the funds, and those who want it available to as many future generations as possible.
Managing donations earmarked for specific uses while maintaining administrative autonomy is now an issue for schools across the United States. While some 4,800 districts have created school-centered charitable organizations, often called local education foundations, to act as conduits for soliciting and handling contributions, the broader question of who has the final say in how the money is spent remains unsettled. In Poplar Bluff, a small city in southeastern Missouri, the only point of agreement is that the yearlong battle over Porter’s bequest would have appalled the intensely private benefactor.
“I just know that Kay never wanted this to be an issue,” Seifert says. “She thought it was [just] a check.”
About 17,000 people live in Poplar Bluff, the government seat of Butler County in the Missouri region known as the gateway to the Ozarks. Chain restaurants, hotels, and gas stations interspersed with churches dot both sides of Business Highway 67, which runs along the west side of town, and many locals, including Jo Nell Seifert, are lifelong residents.
Porter moved to the city in the 1940s but didn’t meet the Seiferts—Jo Nell; her sister, Karen; and her parents, Thadis and Imogene—until the early 1980s. She and her husband, Edwin, who ran a construction company, had no children. After his death in 1983, they became her surrogate family, playing bridge, celebrating holidays and birthdays, and eating dinner together regularly.
The widow battled cancer four times, the first in 1993, when half a lung was removed and doctors told Porter to put her affairs in order. The Seiferts assisted her for the next decade, taking care of finances, buying groceries, and handling medical care. Despite her closeness with Jo Nell’s family, Porter never complained about her health, and neither the Seiferts nor others knew the extent of her wealth. “She wanted to be very in the background,” says Cindy Tanner, a longtime friend who has taught at the high school since 1979.
Perhaps because of her wish for privacy, Porter was known for her vitality rather than her illnesses: a ready laugh that filled a room, twinkling eyes, a sly sense of humor, a passion for bridge. And generosity. In 2001, around the time the lung cancer that would eventually kill her returned, Porter gave $3.5 million to nearby Three Rivers Community College—the largest donation in the institution’s history, according to TRCC administrator Judith Scott. After Porter’s death, her estate donated almost a million dollars each to nine organizations, including the high school drama club and the public library. Another $100,000 was given to the high school science department, and $50,000 went to maintain the theater she had constructed several years before.
The bequests came as a surprise, much as Porter’s earlier decision to build the theater had. “I said to her once, ... ‘How did you ever come up with this?’ ” Seifert recalls. “And she said, ‘I saw how hard you worked and how hard those kids worked, and we would go to a play and sit in folding chairs. I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t see, and I was uncomfortable.’ ”
Seifert is older than she seems, with a round face and rich voice. She’s sitting in the small formal living room of her home on a couch that used to belong to Porter. In fact, many of the furnishings did; Porter left the contents of her own home, since sold, to the 51-year-old drama teacher.
Hanging on a staircase wall in Seifert’s house is a framed letter that lays out the terms of the 1998 theater donation. The original copy, signed by a lawyer, stated that an individual who wished to remain anonymous was prepared to give at least $1 million to build a performance space at the high school. This particular copy, which Porter gave Seifert a few days after it was signed, has a line appended at the bottom: “bcc: Kay Porter.”
“When she handed me that letter,” Seifert says, her voice thickening, “she said to me, ‘If you and your parents had not ... been such good nurses, you would have gotten this in ’93.’ ”
Since the early 1980s, Seifert had taught drama at one end of a room in a small addition behind the gymnasium. A raised platform functioned as a stage, but Seifert shared the larger space with coaches running drills and kids tossing balls. Then, in April 1998—when the drama club was preparing for a state tournament—two of Seifert’s students waylaid her and told her they couldn’t rehearse in the annex.
“I said, ‘What are you guys talking about?’ And they said, ‘Miss Seifert, you need to get up there. They’re walling in the stage.’ ”
Sure enough, carpenters were installing a partition, separating the raised platform from the rest of the room. Administrators had approved a request by the head coach to convert the stage area into a cardiovascular room. Then-superintendent Mike Johnson offered alternatives—an extra classroom, busing kids to rehearsals elsewhere—but Seifert found them untenable. About a month later, she recalls, Johnson called and said, “An attorney wants to meet with you and me, tomorrow at 11 o’clock, about a theater.”
The anonymous donor (soon revealed through word-of-mouth to be Porter) set two conditions, which the district grudgingly accepted: Seifert had to be included in all decisions, and the building, when completed, could not be used by the athletic department. “That was a very sore spot,” Tanner says. “[Porter] was trying to protect the theater because of all the different things that had happened in the annex. ... And I know that she was very surprised by the reaction.”
Throughout construction, Porter controlled the process. She paid bills as work was completed, and the district was never given money directly. When Johnson wanted to make the space large enough to seat 450 people, Porter said no—because Seifert wanted an intimate audience area and a large backstage. Later, the architect suggested putting in seats with folding desktops to create more of a multipurpose facility. That, too, was overruled.
A year after the theater was completed, the superintendent required Seifert to teach all her classes there. The district’s stance, still maintained today, was that it was pointless to let a good facility go unused in light of classroom shortages at that time. The kids sat in the lobby on folding chairs, with wooden boards for lap desks. To get to the building, they had to walk across campus, past the gym, and through the parking lot; if they didn’t arrive late, they were often tardy for their next classes. “It’s like they [chose] one teacher a year to pick on,” recalls Jill Sueltz, a former PBHS teacher now at a junior high school in Columbia, Missouri. “And that year, it was Jo Nell.”
After Johnson left the district in 2002, his successor, Randy Winston, called Seifert almost immediately, asking for a fresh start and reassigning her to a regular classroom. But problems resurfaced following Porter’s death last year. The drama club has an account to cover the costs of licensing plays, traveling to competitions, printing programs, and buying supplies, among other things. Money raised by Seifert and her students goes into that account, and the teacher believes that Porter intended her bequest to go there as well. The language in Porter’s trust, however, is vague—specifying only that one-ninth of a portion of the estate be “distributed” to the “Poplar Bluff High School Drama Club Fund”—leaving the district and school board to decide exactly what that means.
About the time the Kay M. Porter Theater was completed, school officials established the Poplar Bluff Public School Foundation, the brainchild of longtime board of education member John Wolpers. A certified financial planner by day, Wolpers was helping an elderly client in another city with her estate planning. She died unexpectedly, leaving her local district a large amount of money. “I started thinking about that, saying, ‘That could happen in Poplar Bluff,’ ” he recalls.
Similar discussions were happening elsewhere. From 1991 to 2001, the number of local education foundations grew by 64 percent and revenues increased almost sixfold, from about $30.3 million to $176 million, according to a report by the nonprofit Urban Institute, a public policy research organization in Washington, D.C. Still, the movement doesn’t have unmitigated support. The most prevalent concern cited by researchers is that LEFs and the private donations they funnel to schools exacerbate the problem they’re trying to fix: School districts with wealthier residents, for example, will benefit in ways that poorer districts can’t.
In Poplar Bluff, it’s unlikely that philanthropy would increase any inequities. More than 90 percent of Missouri’s districts spend more per pupil, and roughly half of Poplar Bluff’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. What have emerged instead are questions of autonomy, questions that haven’t been widely discussed in research about private donations. Porter’s offer to build the theater had two provisos; if the administrators didn’t accept both, they wouldn’t get the money. But is it fair to expect a school or district to cede decisions—to an individual benefactor or a charitable foundation—about how best to serve its students?
“You make the grant based on expectations that certain things are going to happen,” says Ronald Thorpe, vice president and director of education at Thirteen/WNET New York. A former high school teacher and administrator, Thorpe has more than a decade of experience directing education initiatives at philanthropic foundations. He believes that it’s the donor’s right to use a contribution as leverage—just as it’s the school system’s responsibility to determine whether a donation, strings and all, is worthwhile.
It’s uncommon but not unheard of for a district to turn down much-needed dollars. Poplar Bluff, though, has accepted all donations proffered through its foundation, which, like many LEFs, allows gifts to be directed toward a particular project or spent at the discretion of the district and foundation boards. It holds one fund-raiser a year, a golf tournament; between that and various individual donations, it clears about $10,000 annually.
Porter’s bequest to the drama club was 100 times that amount. Several school board members, Wolpers among them, want to put part or all of the money into an endowment fund, providing Seifert with only the interest each year and ensuring that the funds would last in perpetuity. Doing so would “prevent any one school board or one teacher to run through those funds in just a few short years,” says Greg West, a 12-year member of the board. “I’m not worried about Ms. Seifert at all. I trust her judgment. But what happens when Ms. Seifert’s not in the picture?”
The opposite concern—whether future school boards would uphold Porter’s drama-club-only stipulation—has also been raised. From a legal standpoint, successive boards could choose to spend the money in whatever way they deem most beneficial. “The board has a lot of power when it comes to budgeting,” says Kelli Hopkins, director of education policy at the Missouri School Boards’ Association. “That’s their primary role.”
Many community members, including those who knew Porter well, assert that she would not have wanted access to the money limited, and they’ve said so at school board meetings and in letters to the local newspaper. Writing to the Daily American Republic, a 1987 graduate of Poplar Bluff High called the situation “deplorable.” The money “was meant to be used as the drama club needed,” a colleague who teaches in a neighboring town wrote in a separate letter. “Any other decision is a sacrilege to Kay Porter’s memory.”
Even students have gotten involved. Sophomore Jessi Cochran spoke at a February school board meeting. “It just seemed like everybody was tired of hearing about it and nobody wanted to deal with the issue,” the 16-year-old recalls. “And I said, ‘If we don’t honor Miss Porter’s gift, then why should anybody else give us money?’ ”
That’s a question the foundation tries to address in its fund-raising brochure, which pledges, “Decide how you want your money used.” By sidestepping the administration, another benefactor did just that for the high school’s math and science departments.
At the back of a classroom in Poplar Bluff High’s C Building, teachers Jesse Gray and Richard Garver are tending a unique nursery that isn’t just for gardening buffs. Instead, students, employees, and even the general public bring their sick or dying plants to be nurtured at the science teachers’ aquaponic lab.
The “lab” itself is a small rectangular space attached to the classroom. What looks like an oversize, dark-gray version of a kiddie pool—this one with 10 or so large fish in it—sits at one end on the floor. A bulbous filter rising from the tub has hoses that extend to a shelving unit stocked with plants on the opposite wall. The filter converts the ammonia found in fish waste into nitrates, which provide needed minerals to the plants.
Despite their matching T-shirts, the teachers could well be the Odd Couple of the school. Gray, a 29-year teaching veteran, keeps his hair cut close to his round, clean-shaven face and speaks purposefully; Garver, who’s shorter and stouter, has a more relaxed tone and occasionally strokes his ZZ Top-style beard while he talks.
They built the aquaponic lab in 1998 with several thousand dollars provided by Clifton Boxx, an alumnus who, over time, donated $150,000 to the school’s math and science departments before his death in 2002. Like Porter, the retired engineer wanted to control how his money was spent; unlike Porter, he circumvented administrators altogether. Checks went straight to the school business manager, and the math department chairman, William Reeves, acted as an agent of sorts: Instructors within the two departments proposed ideas, and Reeves dispensed the funds.
“I think [Boxx] was just wise enough to say, ‘Hey, I wanna make sure that my moneys are spent in a certain way,’ ” Reeves says.
In 2000, soon after the theater’s completion, Boxx brought Porter to see the lab. After she walked inside, Gray says, she started to cry. “And Richard and I are going, ‘But look at all you’ve done. You’ve built a theater for these kids.’ And she goes, ‘That’s nothing. It’s only money,’ ” Gray recalls. “She said, ‘I wish I could do this. You’ve helped kids.’ ”
So as part of her trust, Porter donated $100,000 to the science department to build a full-scale aquaponic greenhouse. Although the drama club donation has been widely discussed, the science project is lesser-known; as of last summer, plans to select a building site had stalled. Garver and Gray take pains to emphasize that the administration makes the decisions. But when Porter’s check arrived, the teachers were asked to develop a detailed proposal, in which they included how the entire science department would use the facility, how it might boost state achievement test scores, even how the elementary and middle schools could use it for field trips.
“This isn’t a standard greenhouse situation,” Garver says. “We’d like—I’d like—a little more say-so into what’s going to be built. ... I don’t think [the administrators] know what we need.”
As of April, however, district officials do know the fate of Porter’s drama club donation. The school board voted that month to place her bequest in a restricted account that “will never be co-mingled with unrestricted district moneys.” This allows Seifert to get what she needs by submitting a yearly projection of expenses, subject to approval by her principal and the superintendent.
But some school and community members still worry about the long-term prospects. “Take the $980,000 out of the restricted fund, which is inside the general fund, and put it in the drama club account. I mean, how simple is that?” asks Dan Ward, a board member who supported the proposal only after Seifert found it acceptable. Superintendent Randy Winston confirmed the terms of the proposal but referred financial questions to Ernie Lawson, the deputy superintendent for business, who did not respond to repeated requests for clarification.
For now, the turmoil seems to have subsided. The theater has been used for public meetings, blood drives, the occasional driver’s ed course, and, of course, performances like Fiddler on the Roof. Preteens can attend Seifert’s weeklong summer camp there. Some of her PBHS students, like 16-year-old Keri Smith, have decided they want to make careers out of acting; Smith even took a second year of Seifert’s drama class as independent study because she couldn’t repeat the same elective. “When I got to high school, I just thought, This’ll be fun,” she says. “And then it turned out I was good at it.”
Giving kids the chance to find out they enjoy theater was of particular importance to Porter, though she didn’t want public recognition for it. Seifert named the building for her against her wishes, and when Porter attended school plays, she sat toward the back and to one side.
That’s where she was opening night for a standing-room-only presentation of Neil Simon’s Rumors. Porter forbade Seifert to bring her onstage or shower her with flowers or candy or awards, but she couldn’t stem all the tributes. On that Friday night in November 2000, after the inaugural performance at the Kay M. Porter Theater, a parent approached the older woman and said that participating in Rumors had changed his daughter’s life.
“Thank you,” Porter replied. “I made a good investment.”
Vol. 17, Issue 02, Pages 44-48Published in Print: October 1, 2005, as Political Theater